Composition tips: knowing intent is important

Getty Museum grounds–At public places it can sometimes be difficult to work. Crowds of people can be a distraction especially if they’re dressed with bright gaudy colors. I had to wait a while as the throngs of people passed continuously on the path.

Whenever we hold that camera up to our eye, it really helps if we are clear what’s compelling us to do so.

If all we’re doing is holding down the shutter button indiscriminately, we may as well be shooting video. No, I’m not “dissing” or disrespecting videography.

That’s a whole different animal.

Since we’re freezing a moment in time, we have to make a conscious decision about when to release the shutter.

Thinking a little about the scene we see before us usually helps.

Architecture–Buildings and cityscapes in general require scouting various locations and sometimes quite a bit of patience to find a good vantage point and waiting for the light. The picture above was taken across from Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Often times when you have limited time in a city, you don’t have the option to go back when the skies are blue–you can only hope for the best.

If what’s happening in the viewfinder is so action-oriented and we can’t interrupt the moment, then the priority would be to capture the action, assuming light levels are bright enough for a high shutter speed.

In that case, the composition might have to take a backseat.

When we can better anticipate where and when that action will take place, we can make some allowances or adjustments for composition like in the picture below.

Making allowances–At a show jumping competition, the horses jump the same obstacles over and over again. This gave me plenty of opportunities to experiment. I had plenty of light to stop the action but I didn’t like that I had so much depth-of-field at IS0 100 1/2000 sec at f2.8 even when I used a 200mm lens, so I used the equivalent exposure 1/60 sec @ f16 to pan, made some room on the right for the rider and horse to move into.

Sometimes in situations like sports and photojournalism or reportage, there is no time to think about that. It’s all about the moment.

On the other hand, if we’re strolling, say at the Getty Museum, our subject is static: a building, the architecture or the grounds.

In that instance we actually have all the time in the world to study our viewfinder, move around, change our viewpoint and “design” or “place” various elements in the viewfinder.

Then, when everything looks perfect, we trip the shutter.

3 thoughts on “Composition tips: knowing intent is important”

  1. I don’t mind, but the photo is by Ken Carl, a Chicago based photographer who came and spent time with us as a volunteer. He is AMAZING!

    Please see his work at

    Thanks, Peter!

  2. Hi Jo,
    Thank you for your kindness and encouragement.

    I love the new look of your blog btw.

    I “borrowed” that lovely picture of the lady with the baby for my latest post. Hope you don’t mind.

    It’s an excellent picture, that’s why.

  3. This is so true! I still remember my teacher asking me what it was I was photographing and why and I was stumped! The moment I started bringing thought to my photos, they got better – and so much more interesting to me as well.

    I was just thinking about this yesterday when I went to a part of town I often go to, but in a second-floor store I had never been to before. Suddenly, seen from a height, the view of the street was entirely different. THAT’S my shot! I’m so excited to go back now and capture it.

    Thanks as usual, Peter. I love your reminders and the way you stretch us to do more. A born teacher!

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